Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Philosophy Weekend: Specters of Socialism

by Levi Asher on Friday, October 29, 2010 11:18 pm

As soon as Barack Obama became President of the United States two years ago, I started hearing about "socialism" in America. Opponents of Obama's platform have raised widespread suspicions that his entire presidency is a conspiracy to establish government control over every aspect of our lives. These critics often use words like "socialism", "Marxism", "fascism" and "tyranny" interchangeably, and have so successfully spooked many trusting American citizens that an entire Rally To Restore Sanity (and/or Fear) became necessary in Washington DC this weekend.

Still, of course, the fear remains. And, in fact, vigilant citizens of every nation in the world should always fear government tyranny, because we've seen horrific examples of it in recent times. Frank Dikotter's history book Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 is a real eye-opener for anybody who lives in comfortable freedom and can't quite picture what real tyranny might feel like.

This book will fill in the blanks, and you'll never forget it. From 1958 to 1961, Mao Zedong's Communist Party-led government carried out an experimental program of food redistribution that literally condemned tens of millions -- yes, tens of millions -- of its own rural citizens to slow, painful death by starvation. Farmers were forced to combine their private farms into collectives, and when these collective harvests failed to meet their unrealistic quotas of food, the farmers were forced to continue to work without eating, until they and their families simply died. Government representatives invaded private homes, poking with long sticks for hidden stashes of food, even as the citizens lay dying on the floor (the government representatives, of course, were well-fed).

Upski's Back: Please Don't Bomb The Suburbs by William Upski Wimsatt

by Levi Asher on Monday, October 25, 2010 08:34 pm

Sometime during the crazy mid-1990s, young graffiti artist and Chicago activist William "Upski" Wimsatt wrote Bomb the Suburbs, one of the quintessential early Soft Skull books. The title was an attention grabber, though of course to "bomb" a place is to spray-paint your tag on a wall, and no call to violence was ever intended.

But a few more crazy years have passed since the mid-90s, and some places around the world really have gotten bombed -- Oklahoma City, New York City and the Pentagon, Iraq and Afghanistan -- and the title of Wimsatt's new book Please Don't Bomb The Suburbs (published, this time around, by Akashic) deals with these changes head-on. The author's introduction explains the conundrums he's faced:

I had nothing to do with the Oklahoma City bombing. It was 180 degrees opposite of my values and worldview. Yet suddenly, the title of my book wasn't so cute anymore. After September 11, it became even less cute.

Fast-forward to 2008. A lot of my friends were involved in the Obama campaign. I had been campaigning for social change for twenty years. This was the most exciting and important campaign of my lifetime. I was already volunteering. And one of my friends asked me to be on an advisory committee. Exciting. *Just send me your resume, you'll be vetted and then* --


Whoa, vetted. Forgot that part.

Philosophy Weekend: Outside of Society

by Levi Asher on Saturday, October 23, 2010 08:20 pm

"Outside of society!" shouts Patti Smith in one of her best songs, Rock and Roll Nigger. The phrase expresses not a reality but rather only a dream for many of us. For a small few, it's an actual choice.

I've never lived off the grid, but I've always been drawn to the idea. The impulse to withdraw from modern suburbia and reinvent society in capsule form has a long intellectual history; it was a driving force of the French Enlightenment, New England Transcendentalism (Louisa May Alcott spent part of her childhood in her father's commune) and the 1960s hippie revolution. During that golden age, Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters lived in a cabin in Palo Alto, Timothy Leary held court at Millbrook, New York, while Allen Ginsberg's poetic entourage gathered around Cherry Valley, New York. But Charlie Manson was also building his own society at Spahn Movie Ranch outside of Los Angeles during these years. Many of the most well-known off-the-grid communes since the end of the 1960s have similarly been disaster stories: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple in Guyana, David Koresh and the Branch Dravidians in Waco, the lonely Unabomber in his Lincoln, Montana cabin.

Some of the original hippie communes, though, did not fail, and managed to evolve. My older and younger sisters both experimented with communal societies at different points in their lives, and I once visited my younger sister for a weekend while she lived on the edge -- half in, half out -- of a rural commune in northwestern Vermont that sustained about 75 regulars and many more visitors. The informal commune -- people lived in separate shacks, but spent their days together -- had existed quietly and successfully for years. I hope it's still there.

Pondering Proust VII: Time Regained

by Michael Norris on Monday, October 18, 2010 05:22 pm

(Our illustrated study of Proust nears its conclusion ...)

"This is the best part of the trip, this is the trip, the best part" -- Jim Morrison, “The Soft Parade”

The final volume of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, Time Regained, opens with a visit M. pays to newlyweds Gilberte and Robert de Saint-Loup at Tansonville, their estate in Combray. He takes long walks around the village with Gilberte, following the same paths that he took as a boy. Although Combray has remained unchanged, he is unable to recapture the pleasures of his childhood strolls. Then Gilberte astounds him by telling him that he can get to the Guermantes’ manor by taking the route that passes Méséglise – Swann’s way. M. has always believed the Guermantes way and Swann’s way to be irreconcilable; now he finds they are connected. His world is about to change, and many of his boyhood assumptions will be shattered.

M.’s interlude at Combray is brief. During his stay, Saint-Loup is away most of the time, ostensibly on business, but actually pursuing Morel; Gilberte makes herself up to look like Robert’s old mistress Rachel, in an attempt to win him back; and M. bemoans his lack of talent for literature. There is then a gap of several years, which M. spends in a sanatorium for his health. The story picks up again in Paris during World War I.

Howl: The Movie

by Levi Asher on Monday, October 4, 2010 08:19 pm

I caught the new film Howl, about Allen Ginsberg's great Beat Generation poem. I thought it was very good.

Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman have crafted a surprisingly accessible and engaging story out of three narrative threads: how Allen Ginsberg wrote this poem, how Lawrence Ferlinghetti nearly went to jail for publishing it, and what the words mean. James Franco, clearly tuned in to Ginsberg's wavelength, skillfully re-enacts the poem's famous debut at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, and the courtroom scenes that follow (with, predictably, Bob Balaban as the judge) are moving and suspenseful but also blissfully accurate and free of histrionics.

At least one person I know hated the vivid Eric Drooker animations that illustrate the poem's words, but I thought they were fine (though Ralph Bakshi would have been an edgier choice). I can't complain about James Franco's well-informed impersonation of Allen Ginsberg, though having met and talked to Ginsberg a few times (I tell the story here) I don't think Franco gets it completely right. He's just a little too cool and relaxed for the deeply froggy, proto-nerdy Allen Ginsberg. Unlike Franco's smooth operator, Allen Ginsberg was always hip, but he was never cool.

Philosophy Weekend: The Philosophy of the Tea Party

by Levi Asher on Sunday, September 26, 2010 10:25 am

Since it's our mission here to discuss popular (rather than academic) philosophy, we can hardly ignore the emergence in the last two years of the Tea Party, a raucous and highly ideological political protest movement that has grown powerful among conservative and/or Republican American voters, and aims to transform the nation.

As a proud liberal, I disagree with almost everything in the Tea Party's loosely defined platform. But I try to always treat my opponents with respect and empathy, and I am disappointed that so many of my fellow liberals have been reacting to the emergence of this grassroots movement by trying to wish it away, and by emphasizing its worst evident characteristics over its better ones.

It's not hard to find noisy Tea Party protestors expressing racist hatred towards President Barack Obama, or saying disturbingly uneducated things about Islam, or carrying signs that cry out for spell-check. It's also not hard to find fault with heroes of the Tea Party movement like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Bachmann, Rand Paul, Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell, and to claim that their obvious flaws -- Sarah Palin's glib overconfidence, Glenn Beck's rabid rage, Christine O'Donnell's hilarious weirdness -- represent the flaws of the movement at large.

But, as always in a principled argument, we'll all benefit more by analyzing this movement according to its best rather than worst characteristics, thus allowing its opposition (which I'm a part of) the chance to win in a fair fight. The Tea Party phenomenon is admirably idealistic and philosophical at its core, and I've spent some time trying to discern (by reading blogs, reading newspapers, listening to talk radio and watching Fox News) the basic intellectual principles behind the Tea Party movement.

Philosophy Weekend: Does Evil Walk Among Us?

by Levi Asher on Sunday, September 19, 2010 09:42 am

We live in a world suffused by the awareness of Evil. Not so much "evil" as described by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

morally reprehensible, sinful, wicked; arising from actual or imputed bad character or conduct

but rather a notion of complete, essential and immutable Evil -- more like the definition in The Catholic Encyclopedia, which begins:

Evil, in a large sense, may be described as the sum of the opposition, which experience shows to exist in the universe, to the desires and needs of individuals; whence arises, among humans beings at least, the sufferings in which life abounds.

This is Evil with a capital E, a singular thing, a characteristic that is applied to humans but seems to originate beyond nature and beyond the bounds of normal life. Like a villain's superpower, this Evil is not a compound object but rather a basic element. It can be defeated but it can't be destroyed. And this Evil walks among us. It has a human face.

Dollar Bill

by Alan Bisbort on Wednesday, September 15, 2010 10:09 pm

(Here's another selection from Alan Bisbort's memoir of his years in the small bookstore business. -- Levi)

Dollar Bill was a regular at the shop, though there was nothing about his looks or manner that suggested a love of books. He was a diminutive but powerful-looking man with stiffly chivalrous manners. His snow-white hair was cropped short, with a little flip at the front as an ever-so-slight concession to the modern world. He also sported a thin, almost invisible white-grey moustache, like George Orwell’s. Combined with his piercing grey-blue eyes, this continental facial hair made him appear both fierce and slightly foolish. His skin was beaten to a leathery consistency by years of exposure to the outdoors, and yet he always dressed in a severely-pressed Navy blue suit, with thick military-style black, thick-soled dress shoes, scuffed a bit at the front but shiny as a mirror in the back. The suit shone like mica from its many dry cleanings. Dollar Bill looked as if he were perpetually on his way to a formal gathering where he would, in all likelihood, be turned away at the door.

Because the bookshop was located seven blocks from the U.S. Marine Corps Barracks, I pegged him to be an old soldier who simply never broke free from the orbit of his career, centered as it had been in Washington, D.C. Though pushing 65, Dollar Bill retained the square muscular Mason jar-head of a Marine whose DNA refused to let him to go completely to seed or to style now that he was out of uniform. This, I knew instantly from having been born into a military family and having lived my boyhood on military bases, was a man who was wed to the service, knew or cared little about anything beyond the service and, had he ever been married, chances are that he had asked for permission first from his commanding officer and would have, had the colonel’s answer been ‘no,’ remained single. Gladly.

Mon Le Bossu

by Levi Asher on Thursday, August 26, 2010 10:41 am

Sometimes I feel lazy. Sometimes I don't have a whole blog post in me. Sometimes I just want to show you some literary links.

1. Documents newly discovered in Penzance, England (hidden perhaps by pirates?) indicate for the first time that Victor Hugo based his Hunchback of Notre Dame on a real hunchbacked sculptor hired to work on the great church's restoration. The documents describe a Monsieur Trajan, or Mon Le Bossu, as a "worthy, fatherly and amiable man" who did not like to socialize with the other restoration workers.

2. The tree that inspired Anne Frank (and many others since) during her captivity in Amsterdam has fallen down, but will live on through sapling plantings.

3. Oxford University Press wants you to adopt a word. They've got lots of unwanted words, and they'll all be put down if you don't.

Vision of the Ducks: Holden Caulfield's Journey in Central Park

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, August 18, 2010 09:15 pm

The image in this week's Litkicks Mystery Spot #7 is from a 1951 aerial map of New York City. It shows the southeast corner of Central Park, a location immortalized in J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. This is where Holden Caulfield stared at ducks in a pond and wondered where they would go in the winter when the pond froze. And it's where he watched his younger sister Phoebe ride on a carousel at the touching end of the book.


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